Archive for December, 2012

Occupy Beyond Occupy

December 28th, 2012  |  Published in Politics

Occupying a foreclosed home in St. Paul, MN

As everyone knows by now, Jacobin issue 9 is out (except for you print subscribers, sorry you lot). There’s lots of great stuff there to dig into.

My lead editorial for this issue began its life as a blog post, and it was originally just going to be a quick response to the absurdly wrong-headed hit on Occupy that Tom Frank wrote for the neo-Baffler.

It sprawled, obviously, into a larger chunk of wannabe-Perry Anderson intellectual history. But what I was originally reacting to was an essay whose false conclusions derived from one specific misbegotten premise: that Occupy was obviously and decisively a failure, and a defeat.

The encampments, from lower Manhattan to Oakland, are long gone. And hence, so is Occupy, from the vantage point of people who didn’t really participate in or understand it. But the legacy of Occupy goes far beyond pitching tents in a few parks or public squares. The people who built those camps went on to build a successor politics that’s ongoing, and both its successes and its failures are worth paying attention to. After hurricane Sandy, Sarah Jaffe covered an iteration of this for Jacobin, when the afterglow of Occupy in New York City re-ignited as an impromptu relief organization that put mainstream relief agencies to shame.

But Occupy’s afterlife extends far beyond New York. Anyone who read my contribution to Jacobin 3-4 knows that I feel a special connection to the politics of Minnesota. So I was delighted that my annual Christmas return to Minneapolis coincided with an action from Occupy Homes, which is what the Minnesotan fraction of Occupy has evolved into.

Occupy in Minnesota, as in many other places, begain with an occupation of public space. But in the upper Midwest, it was particularly pressing that activists find something else to expend their energy on that didn’t involve camping outside through the long winter. As Occupy Homes activist Nick Espinosa explained to me, the focus on housing began when a foreclosure victim simply turned up at the camp and told her story. Since then, Occupy Homes has been involved in multiple foreclosure defenses, including one that resulted in (since-dismissed) riot charges against Espinosa and other activists.

The most recent action, pictured above, was as simple and media-friendly as it was politically powerful. We helped to move a homeless family of three into a vacant, foreclosed house in St. Paul, just in time for Christmas. The woman shown speaking above is the previous owner of the house, who is in the process of losing it to US Bank. She gave her blessing and support to the activists from Occupy Homes and Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (an ACORN successor organization) as they reclaimed the place for Carrie, Xavier, and young Caleb, shown on the left.

The activists are demanding that US Bank give the house to a community organization and take it as a tax write-off, so that it can be used to house people again instead of sitting empty. But even if the bank won’t play ball, Espinosa told me that they should be able to keep the family from being evicted for at least a month, and quite possibly longer. And Occupy Homes has every intention of creating a publicity nightmare for the local authorities, if they decide to start evicting families on behalf of big banks. With luck, the action I took part in in St. Paul will be the first of many.

Getting a personal look at what Occupy activists are doing in Minnesota reinforced my conviction that the hopeful note on which I ended my editorial was the right one: “The old may still be dying, but the new is already being born. Our task is to help it grow.”

New Issue, Political Miscellany

December 20th, 2012  |  Published in Politics, Shameless self-promotion

The new issue of Jacobin will be out next week, just after Christmas, and it’s full of great stuff. You should subscribe if you haven’t already, or give someone else a gift subscription if you have. (You can place an order with the right shipping address, send an email to subscriptions@jacobinmag.com with your gift announcement, and we’ll handle the rest.)

This issue’s cover is inspired by my lead editorial, which is both an appreciation and a critique of the Baffler, the small magazine that strongly influenced me and others associated with Jacobin back in its 1990’s heyday, and which was recently relaunched under new leadership. I’m sure people will enjoy the salacious catfight element of sniping at another publication, but I hope they also respond to my larger purpose, which is to explain why the Baffler was so important and appropriate to the time of its initial run, and why I think Jacobin is reacting to a qualitatively different historical moment.

While you’re waiting for the issue to appear, here are two things you should do. The first is to help defend University of Rhode Island professor and Lawyers, Guns, & Money blogger Erik Loomis. As explained in this statement at Crooked Timber, Loomis is the victim of an absurd rightist smear campaign, all because he used Twitter to metaphorically demand NRA head Wayne LaPierre’s “head on a stick” in the aftermath of the Newtown school shooting. I’ve had my strong disagreements with Loomis, but this is a moment to pull together in solidarity. As an untenured professor, Loomis’s job and career are at risk, and what’s happening to him is a risk that all of us run when we air radical ideas in public. Read the statement for more, or just go right ahead and contact the following administrators at URI:

  • Dean Winnie Brownell: winnie@mail.uri.edu
  • Provost Donald DeHays: ddehayes@uri.edu
  • President David Dooley: davedooley@mail.uri.edu

The second thing I would recommend for U.S. readers is to have a look at this page, which catalogs the positions of Senate Democrats on President Obama’s plan to cut Social Security through a change in the way benefits are adjusted for inflation. Some have already come out against it, but many more haven’t made their position clear, and a few are in favor. If your Senators are in the undecided or pro-cuts group, you can use the site to contact them and either express your disagreement, or try to pin them down on their position. Figuring out where all these politicians stand will be important in trying to beat back these cuts, just as it was in the fight over Bush’s attempt to privatize Social Security.


With that out of the way, here are some other things I’ve published elsewhere lately that may be of interest.

I have an essay in a rather unusual venue for me: the “Garage Sale Standard”, a broadsheet that was commissioned to accompany a recent staging of artist Martha Rosler’s “Meta-Monumental Garage Sale” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. My essay, “The Garage Sale and Other Utopias”, can be found in PDF form here. I attempt to place the garage sale in the context of capitalism’s fetish of the commodity, and individual attempts to escape from it:

To alter the conditions that produce things like the Foxconn scandal would require a radical, worldwide transformation of the kind of society and economy we live in. Lacking the ability to bring about such a change, consumers disturbed by what is revealed when objects are defetishized understandably look for ways to avoid implication in processes of production that they find ugly and exploitative. Two of the most popular strategies are ethical consumption and buying secondhand. But while each of these points in certain hopeful and utopian directions, each also demonstrates the limits of seeking individual solutions to a collective dilemma.

I also have an essay in the most recent issue of the New Inquiry, “Sowing Scarcity”. It’s a discussion of agriculture, in which I attempt to combine my longstanding preoccupation with intellectual property laws with a richer appreciation of ecological issues:

This is late capitalism’s inverted world, where business and government treat nature as infinite but strictly ration culture. Thus does capitalism, billed in every economics textbook as the supreme mechanism for allocating scarce resources, degenerate into a machine that introduces scarcity where it need not exist and blithely squanders the things that are in short supply.

Finally, I had a blast appearing on Portland’s KBOO radio to discuss the Basic Income and anti-work leftism with Joe Clement and Kathryn Sackinger and take questions from callers over the course of an hour. You can find the audio file at the link, along with some supplementary reading. If you want to hear an explanation and defense of Universal Basic Income as a Gorzian “non-reformist reform” in audio format, I think this is a pretty comprehensive one.

Robots and Liberalism

December 12th, 2012  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Political Economy, Politics, Socialism, Time, Work

People know my beat by now, so everyone has been directing my attention to Paul Krugman’s recent musings on the pace of automation in the economy. He moves away from his earlier preoccupation with worker skills, and toward the possibility of “‘capital-biased technological change’, which tends to shift the distribution of income away from workers to the owners of capital.” He goes on to present data showing the secular decline in labor’s share of income since the 1970’s.

He then notes that his position “has echoes of old-fashioned Marxism”, but reassures us that this uncomfortable realization “shouldn’t be a reason to ignore facts”. The implication of those facts, he says, are that neither the liberal nor conservative common sense has anything to say about our current predicament: “Better education won’t do much to reduce inequality if the big rewards simply go to those with the most assets. Creating an “opportunity society” . . . won’t do much if the most important asset you can have in life is, well, lots of assets inherited from your parents.”

Meanwhile we have Kevin Drum despairing that the coming decades will be “mighty grim”, as automation means that “the owners of capital will automate more and more, putting more and more people out of work”. And we have the Financial Times publishing Izabella Kaminska arguing that “we’ve now arrived at a point where technology begins to threaten return on capital, mostly by causing the sort of abundance that depresses prices to the point where many goods have no choice but to become free.” This, of course, leads to attempts to impose artificial scarcity through new forms of property rights (with dire consequences for growth and prosperity), but I’ve written all about that elsewhere.

What I mainly find interesting is what all this interest in technology and jobless growth says about the limits of contemporary liberalism. We can all hope that Gavin Mueller’s reverie of Paul Krugman dropping LSD and becoming a Marxist will come to pass, but in the meantime his type seems to have no real answer. Nor do those of a more labor-liberal bent, like Dan Crawford at Angry Bear, who laments being called a neo-luddite and scornfully says: “As if widespread use of automated systems was automatically good for us overall”. As if a world in which we hold back technical change in order to keep everyone locked into deadening jobs is a vision that will rally the masses to liberalism.

In its more sophisticated form, this kind of politics takes the form of Ed Miliband’s “predistribution”, which Richard Seymour glosses as a belief that “rather than taxing the rich to fund welfare, the government should focus on making work pay more.” But if the structure of the modern economy is, as Krugman argues, one which depends on increasing numbers of robots and diminishing numbers of people, this project is bound to be either ineffectual or pointlessly destructive of our potential social wealth. The idea that there is something inherently superior, either politically or morally, about raising pre-tax and transfer incomes, rather than doing redistribution, is one that has never seemed to me to be especially well grounded. At times I suspect that it stems from an uncritical embrace of the historically specific white populist identity politics of the working class, and its accompanying fetish for the point of production, that I talk about here.

Not to say I have all the answers either, but here on the crazy Left we at least have some ideas. Ideas that don’t presuppose the desirability of keeping the assembly line of employment going at all costs, pumping out something that we can call “middle class jobs”. Ideas that get back to crazy notions like working time reduction and the decommodification of labor. These days, the unrealistic utopians are the nostalgics for the Fordist compromise, who see the factory worker with a high school diploma and a middle class income as the apex of human emancipation. But as Lenin said, “One can never be radical enough; that is, one must always try to be as radical as reality itself”.